Friday, January 29, 2016

Scottish Cup II Preview

By Ben Middlemiss

January in Scotland is miserable. It’s always dark, it’s always cold, there’s nothing on telly, and no one will come play us. The snitch workshop went to Manchester, and we weren’t even invited to Compass Cup. See that big N on the compass, guys? Well, quidditch players actually live up there: north of the wall, perpetually caked in frozen mud like angry ginger golems. But never mind, because this weekend we’re playing the only athletes brave enough to take on the Scots in winter – each other.

Photo Credit: Alix Marie D'Avigneau
On Sunday 31 of January, the ‘seaside resort’ of St Andrews will play host to the Irn-Bru-swilling, caber-tossing, and hardcore quidditching extravaganza that is the second annual Scottish Cup. It’s all anyone in the British quidditch community can talk about, because it’s the only thing that’s going on until the British Quidditch Cup (BQC). And why should you care? Because change is afoot in the UK’s fastest-growing quidditch region.

What’s New?
Scotland’s capital now boasts three teams across two clubs, making it the city with the most teams in these fair isles. Edinburgh’s Holyrood Hippogriffs are debuting a second team, provisionally entitled the Buccleuch Bobcats, with the intention of establishing an official secondary team with a fluid roster in the fashion of SQC. Newly formed cross-city rivals Napier Nargles are also rumoured to be attending in a spectatorial capacity, as they look to grow their club enough to hopefully debut as a team in the near future. Also in attendance are the UK’s only official kidditch team, the Kinlochleven Midges, whose presence should ensure that the ‘no-swearing’ rule is treated with the seriousness it has not previously been afforded in Scottish quidditch. The Dumyat Dragons – formerly the Stirling Dragons – are competing once again with an overhauled squad; they have spent the majority of the past year inactive, and they are again ready to play quidditch on the national stage.

However, new clubs are only half the story, as a slew of fresh recruits have changed the landscape of the old guard of Scottish quidditch. The power balance between the ‘old firm’ of St Andrews Snidgets and Holyrood Hippogriffs has been upset, and the reverberations can be felt throughout UK quidditch as a whole. With that, let’s look at the teams as they stand going into the second Scottish Cup.

St Andrews Snidgets
It’s been a rough year in Scottish quidditch for the incumbent champions. At last year’s event, the Snidgets thrashed every other team, conceding only one goal to their own B team; it’s been a torrid year for the East Fifers since then. After crashing out of their BQC group following an embarrassing loss to the Norwich Nifflers, the Snidgets were smashed by the Hippogriffs twice at Highlander III, sending them into this tournament as only favourites for second place for the first time. On paper, it is easy to see what has heralded this descent; the Snidgets have lost almost the entirety of their first-string players, with captain Matt O’Connor having been on leave, top scorer Alex Harrison and beater Sasha Burgoyne having departed to form the Werewolves of London, and offensive beater Ben Middlemiss committing the ultimate betrayal by transferring to their Edinburgh rivals.

However, perseverance is starting to pay off for the Snidgets. The St Andrews side avenged two previous SWIM losses to London Unspeakables in a gruelling pair of back-to-back games at Highlander III, and they impressed with a much-improved performance at Northern, clocking up a win against Durham Direwolves, and two respectable losses to Keele Squirrels and Leeds Griffins. The improvement between Highlander and Northern Cup was marked, with St Andrews boasting a tighter passing game and employing set plays that incorporated every player on the pitch. Dedicated fitness and drill training sessions under the tutelage of acting captain Alix Marie d’Avigneau are beginning to pay off, but the question remains whether St Andrews have sufficiently replaced their departing personnel to overcome Edinburgh’s rising star.

The Snidgets have the home advantage in this regard: several key players who have been unavailable due to work commitments, such as veteran beater Elliot Fogg, last year’s second highest scorer Sergii Drobysh, and Scotland’s number one seeker Caitlin Hamilton, are on the squad for the first time this season. Rather than split their reduced player base between two teams as they did last year, St Andrews have wisely opted to pillage their now-defunct second team – the St Andrews Skrewts – for talent, and have promoted elusive chaser Roland Crompton and driving keeper Sam Bunce to this end. However, the Fife club could have done with a larger crop of freshers this year, both in terms of number and physical size. Their standout newbie is without question Klara Volckaert, whose calm passing game has been an asset to them all season, but there is a concern that they still lack a certain degree of physicality in defence. The return of O’Connor will help offset this, as will the presence of returners Aakash Gupta and Aaron Daubney, but they still lack a physical presence on the beater game that can compete against what other teams bring to the table.

St Andrews should run through an inexperienced Stirling side and should fancy their chances against the Edinburgh newcomers, but there would need to be a giant leap forward in performance for Snidgets to overturn their 200*-40 and 90-30* losses in Edinburgh only three months ago. St Andrews’ key to success is ensuring that the fast-driving game of their returning players can gel with the clever passing game of their freshers in order to navigate an aggressive Hippogriff defence, a feat which they have achieved only once this season.

Holyrood Hippogriffs
Like St Andrews, Edinburgh’s first team have experienced a reversal in fortunes this year, except for the better. Holyrood’s performance last season was unwaveringly subpar, being the only team not to reach the second day of their own tournament and spinning out of BQC by midday on Day One. Having since achieved third place at Highlander and seventh place at Northern, the Hippogriffs are playing like a new team, despite the high volume of returning players in the squad.

The Hippogriffs have approached tournaments this season with an intense competitiveness that is reflected by their schism into an A team and a B team. Off pitch, vice-captain Ollie Riley has taken a greater hand in squad selection, favouring fast and physical players over tactical awareness or technical ability, whilst the sub box is martialled by Hannah El-Shobaki, who organises the squad with a militaristic ferocity. On pitch, Johnney Rhodes still encourages a fluid approach to attack, which is now bolstered with the offensive beater game of Ben Middlemiss and Nye Baker, who comprise arguably the most aggressive and risky beater pairing in UK quidditch. The biggest change, however, is the attitude behind the team itself, which is comparatively serious and pragmatic in comparison to their previous incarnations.

The freshers Edinburgh have pulled immediately into their first team reflect this change in attitude. Holyrood utilise the imposing size of keepers Zach Dean-Stone and Kingsley Taveau to drive attacks and bring down any stray chasers that get through the Hippogriffs’ defensive line; both have been instrumental in Edinburgh’s success this season. Kelsey Silberman likewise stands out among the new chasers for her speed and strength on the ball, and Edinburgh may have finally found a replacement for physical chaser Joanna Tsyitee in newcomer Pip Wayte, who is making her debut this tournament. Edinburgh have clearly had success in attracting and integrating the athletic kinds of players that Scottish clubs have traditionally lacked, and this has allowed them to play a very open game against lesser opponents.

Although the improvement upon last year’s performance is remarkable, recent tournaments have shown some of Edinburgh’s weaknesses. Holyrood’s chasers prefer to play a high-pressing defensive line that has proven vulnerable to breaks from speedier players such as James Thanangadan in their heavy defeat to Nottingham Nightmares or passes to unmarked trolls, as repeatedly occurred in their loss to Durhamstrang at Northern. Likewise, Holyrood rely heavily on their beaters to deal with charging attacks and are overly susceptible to these when they lack bludger control. They will have high expectations coming into this tournament and will consider anything other than running away with the whole thing a bitter disappointment. To achieve this, the Hippogriffs will need to control bludger possession against St Andrews and consider using a more conservative defence than they’re used to in order to counteract the Snidgets speed on the break and accurate passing game.

Buccleuch Bobcats
Although a new team on paper, Edinburgh’s second team are far from inexperienced. All but three of them have previous tournament experience, and around half of them are returning players that didn’t make the cut for this tournament. With the fluidity between the two Edinburgh teams, players can expect to be promoted and demoted between the two teams at relatively short notice, and the spots open on the first team should spur the new side’s players on to demonstrate why they should be made first team regulars. As a team, they should be aiming to beat Stirling’s side comprehensively, and compete with the St Andrews Snidgets. Whether they can achieve this is another matter.

With a new team and new leadership, it’s difficult to predict what sort of game the Bobcats will put together if indeed they come into this tournament with any coherent tactic or philosophy in mind. Acting captain Ailsa Speirs will need to pull the team together in a relatively short time to stand a chance of beating St Andrews. However, the team is not without their strengths. Beaters Bob Pratt and Chris MacKenzie performed well for the first team at recent tournaments, with the former using size to deploy a more direct, offensive game and the latter specialising in defence and surreptitiously regaining control. The second team arguably possess the better seeker of the two Edinburgh sides in Lorenzo ‘Lolo’ Martinico, and have depth in attack with freshers Luka Nikolic, Carina Zacharias, and Mohamed Elsonbaty all capable of threatening round the hoops. The most difficult task for the second team will be developing cohesion in such a short span of time without the usual lynchpins of the first team. Auxiliary players will need to assume the role of playmaker, beaters used to remaining around the hoops will need to take initiative to regain control, and new keepers must learn to command their defence rather than await instruction. How well and how quickly Buccleuch adapt to these roles will determine how far they go in this tournament.

Dumyat Dragons
Since their appearance at Scottish Cup last year, Stirling have been largely absent from the UK quidditch scene. Other than a couple of informal mixed teams friendlies with Edinburgh, their club is shrouded in mystery, and the initiative is with Stirling to surprise the more established teams following their heavy defeats by all the other sides at the Scottish Cup of last year.

There remains some consistency in the side, with Vicky Martin retaining her captaincy and the return of aggressive beater Hannah Chandler and chaser Larissa Byrne, who made an impression at last year’s event and the Scottish merc tournament Clan Warfare. Also consistent with last year’s appearance is the dearth of non-females on the squad, with the Dragons having to merc two males from St Andrews, having lost keeper Liam Stewart to the Buccleuch Bobcats. The experience of Felicity Guite, Alice McDougall, and Holly Mowle will doubtless aid the newer Dumyat players, but the team should resist the temptation to rely too heavily on its mercs; at this stage in their development, Stirling need to make sure their own players are getting plenty of game time, learning stuff, and enjoying themselves. This is the real goal for Stirling here if they want to continue to grow as a club and become an established force on the UK quidditch scene. In the short term, however, they should be aiming to create an upset against Edinburgh’s second team. Against the old firm, it could be possible to hold possession for as long as possible to keep the games close to snitch range whilst trying to sneak the odd cheeky goal when their opponents get frustrated and overcommit. Only time will tell what Stirling are able to bring to the table in this regard.

Editor's Note: Comments regarding upheaval within Stirling's Committee were erroneously reported and have been removed. The Quidditch Post apologizes and regrets the error.

Barring any major upset, expecting the Hippogriffs to win would be a safe bet, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they won every game by a fair margin. St Andrews are the only team that can pull off the upset, but it’ll take shrewd tactics to do it. The Bobcats should expect to match the Skrewts performance of last year in third place, and the Dragons will still gain a lot from some respectable losses. However, with two more burgeoning sides in attendance to watch and learn, an expected high turnout of spectators, and the proceeds of the event being donated to charity as part of St Andrew’s RAG Week, the real win we’re looking for is growth for the sport in Scotland. Despite being overlooked by organisations south of the wall, we might achieve just that by our own initiative.

1 comment:

  1. What bullshit about the committee for the Stirling team! Team commitment and the costs of transportation kept them from going to two matches! Hardly inactive. And NOT the committee's fault. But then again why should anyone be surprised that you guys haven't checked facts, again. Absolute garbage.